October 22, 2017

Using AIS to track the United States Navy Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carrier Fleet


First off, tracking US Navy aircraft carriers using AIS is a terrible idea, because of the seemingly-random and inconsistant US Navy AIS transponder policy. The policy made it's public debut recently as a result of two fatal collisions; that of the USS John McCain, and the USS Fitzgerald. The US Navy provided guidance to commanders to use AIS when travelling in proximity to civilian vessels. However, the safety of the Carrier Strike Group, and the carrier itself, is of paramount concern; so it seems the US Navy is a little reluctant to expose their location consistently across the fleet.

Some ships in the US Navy pop up on public unclassified AIS tracking sites like MarineTraffic.com routinely, while others haven't beaconed once for the past 5+ years. The aircraft carriers are a mixed bag; they aren't just using their AIS transponder to send a "message" to adversaries that they can operate anywhere they want in International waters, they're also broadcasting their location to foreign port facilities who send out pilot vessels and tugs to help their approach into harbour.

Another point about OPSEC; if a US Navy vessel activates their AIS transponder, the commanding officer made a judgement to do so, and expose their position to anyone with an internet connection who can pull up the MarineTraffic.com web page. These are not accidents, they are deliberate beacons for strategic messaging as well as local inter-operation with allied port facilities. Their position is neither secret, or dangerous.  But don't take my word for it; it was the commanding officer who indicated as much when they turned on their transponder. If the ship's commander is perfectly alright with broadcasting their position to the world, you are allowed to know as well, guilt-free, without being a "spy"!

This is not a "loose lips sink ships" situation.



USS Nimitz#CVN68MMSI:303981000NMTZNaval Base Kitsap, Bremerton, Washington
USS Dwight D. Eisenhower#CVN69MMSI:368962000NIKENaval Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia
USS Carl Vinson#CVN70MMSI:369970409NCVVNaval Air Station North Island, San Diego, California
USS Theodore Roosevelt#CVN71MMSI:366984000NNTRNaval Air Station North Island, San Diego, California
USS Abraham Lincoln#CVN72?NABENaval Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia
USS George Washington#CVN73MMSI:368913000NNGWNaval Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia
USS John C. Stennis#CVN74MMSI:368912000NJCSNaval Base Kitsap, Bremerton, Washington
USS Harry S. Truman#CVN75MMSI:368800000NHSTNaval Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia
USS Ronald Reagan#CVN76MMSI:369970410NRGNYokosuka Naval Base, Yokosuka, Japan
USS George H.W. Bush#CVN77MMSI:369970663NGHWNaval Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia
USS Gerald R. Ford#CVN78??Naval Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia



October 03, 2017

Open Skies Treaty overflight of the United States by the RuAF Sept 25-29 2017

From September 25th to 29th the USAF played host to an Open Skies Treaty overflight of the United States by the Russian Federation.  Here is the flight plan as captured by FlightRadar24, as best as it was able to track the flight using Mode-S MLAT, triangulating transponder information received by private receivers across the country. You'll notice the green dots are likely sites which pictures were being taken, as they were within the allowable envelope. Provided they were at ~11,000ft, and not banking, they would be allowed take pictures, per the treaty and arranged flight plan.

Flying at 11,000ft indicates the digital electro-optical sensor (that when spoken of before the Senate Armed Services Committee was made to sound like the Death Star by DIA 3-Star General Stewart) was in "medium" altitude mode, and the swath was 7.7km (4.8mi) total width.  Please remember that USAF members are aboard the plane for the entire overflight, the camera being used has been certified by a 22 nation committee, and the resolution of the imagery is worse than commercially available satellite imagery.

As usual, the USAF did not inform the American people of this overflight because their media posture is "passive", by policy. Only the Russian news media, usually maligned as "fake news" or propagandists, inform us of these flights. Why would the US Government be more controlling with the message than the Russians? Wouldn't they want to show a working treaty in action and dispel any fear about the Red Scare narrative? 🤔

(There is another Open Skies overflight going on this week, FYI)

September 10, 2017

Is the US Navy, or NATO Maritime Command, watching the same ships I am?

US Navy P-8A #168440
(2016) Photo Credit to Michael Debock
This evening two plane spotters posted almost identical Tweets, drawing my attention to something I should be, but frequently forget to, keep an eye on. ADS-B transponders, from planes over the Mediterranean.



From this we know from ~1700Z to ~2200Z on September 10th 2017, US Navy Boeing P-8 Poseidon  registration #168440 was circling something off the coast of Malta, or working over an area looking for something.

Well, strangely I've been speculating there may be a Russians arms shipment going to India on (at least) two civilian ships in the area; the Ocean Fortune (MMSI 636013841) and Ocean Dream (MMSI 636016448).  Where were they between 1700Z and 2200Z?  I'm fairly certain the US Navy P-8A is outfitted with night vision capability, possibly using SAR. They may have been waiting for dark in order to inspect the ship at long range, ie without raising suspicion. However, they left their ADS-B transponder on, so they would have been very visible to anyone who was looking for them. Was this an accident? Not usually. The US Navy is usually very aware of their transponders.



I used "large" icons for the time period of the P-8A flight, but without the exact coordinates they flew, you just have to eyeball the screenshots and my map above. What do you think? It sure looks to me like the US Navy wanted a closer look at the RoRo and container ship that may be carrying S400s to India.

A bona fide "Vessel Of Interest"!

August 19, 2017

Russian Open Skies Treaty overflight of the USA, August 2017 edition

Refer to previous posts I've written on the Open Skies Treaty for background; this post is just to get you the map with all the flight information available from FlightRadar24.

While elements of the media have been focused on the "outrage" of the "low-level" flight over the Pentagon, Camp David, and Trump's golf course, I've been laughing at the other obvious targets of their photography; including one of my favourite military targets; Site R.  Several military bases, Navy facilities, Shipyards, Ammunition Depots, etc.. were photographed as well.  Their altitude (~4000ft) suggests a digital panoramic camera is being used, but I don't have confirmation of that. The treaty mandates a maximum of 30cm resolution, which is less detailed than commercial satellite imagery, but the camera is certified as being tamper-proof, and the imagery can (is) shared among all 34+ signatories of the treaty.

Anyone telling you the Russians are using the Open Skies Treaty for purposes it wasn't intended to be used for has not read the treaty, or has ulterior motives.  Don't believe the hype, look for yourself.  Zoom in on the map below, look up your favourite East Coast military facilities.  A reminder tho; military targets are not always military buildings or property.  Tanks could be sitting in a rail yard, and could be just as valuable to check out year to year. General Dynamics or other defense contractors might be performing tests at a civilian owned property.  Some very poorly informed people have even suggested the treaty has something to do with missiles. It does not. The treaty covers everything and anything they want it to cover; and that's how it works for our overflights of Russia as well.

Unfortunately, the "new" low altitude (by comparison w/ former ~10,000ft) flights makes it hard to triangulate the transponder using MLAT, so the flight route is spotty.  Many of the targets are quite obvious.  Also of note, the "swath" that the camera catches in the frame is large; I'm not sure how large with that camera at 4,000ft, but they do not need to be "over" something to get a good picture of it.



A Journalist's Primer on the Open Skies Treaty

You're a journalist. Your editor just told you you have to write something on the Treaty on Open Skies, or the Open Skies Treaty, because someone in Washington made a statement about it, and they said it had to do with Russia. Everyone loves reading about Russia; am I right?.  Unfortunately, you can't find a whole lot out there from primary sources, and the US Government is giving you the run-around. All you have to go on is whatever statement the politician you're covering made. Were they telling the truth? Can you fact check what they said?  How do you do so, if nobody's talking, or even knows anything about this damn treaty?
Excerpts from US Air Force manual 16-604 dated 2016-05-31 titled
"IMPLEMENTATION OF, AND COMPLIANCE WITH,
THE TREATY ON OPEN SKIES"

Well let me help you.

Who the hell are you?

I'm a guy who's interested, who's been following this treaty for years, who's had the opportunity to talk to some very well versed people, both on and off the record.  I want to give journalists the ability to critically-think their way around whatever it is they're covering regarding the Open Skies Treaty, provide primary source information to them, and give some suggestions on who else to ask questions to; who will answer intelligently, with experience and knowledge.  Taking a government source and prefixing the statement with "a Senior Government Official said..." is not good enough to absolve a story from the responsibility of the written word.

Why?
4.2.1.1.6.7. Public Affairs.  Clearly-established ground rules on control of media movement and actions are necessary to prevent interference with inspections. Wing Public Affairs offices will comply with USG and DoD posture for OST flights. (T-0). The USG and DOD posture is “response to query (RTQ).” This means Open Skies Treaty personnel can respond to inquiries but not actively promote activities. There are no restrictions placed on articles for the base newspaper or website that reflect that an OST mission or activity is taking place or was recently completed. (T-3)I noticed that Journalists are at a disadvantage on the Open Skies Treaty, more so than many topics.  There is very little information out there that can be consulted for background information and research; that's not an accident. I'm concerned that journalists will not find the objective answers they're looking for while researching the story, and will inadvertently present a one-sided story directly influenced by political actors that want to control the message. Experts in the State Department Arms Control and Verification department are not at liberty to reach out to the press and inform them how well everything is working, in many ways.  US Air Force manual 16-604 dated 2016-05-31 titled "IMPLEMENTATION OF, AND COMPLIANCE WITH, THE TREATY ON OPEN SKIES" quite clearly states the US Air Force will not publicise the flights, but will answer questions from the media is asked through their Public Affairs department. Well, the catch there is, if a Russian plane is flying over the United States, how would the media know, if the US Air Force won't tell you? Welcome to Twitter; where wonks like myself are keeping an eye out and will Tweet about the #OpenSkiesTreaty flight when we find out about it.


7.6. Public Affairs (PA)  7.6.1. In accordance with standing OASD(PA) guidance, the DoD PA posture is: response to inquiry only. 7.6.2. If media coverage of Open Skies activities is accommodated, host units will do so IAW DOD "Principles of Information," SAF/PA, DTRA/PA, OASD(PA), and installation PA guidance. (T-0). Host units will consider requests by news media to cover these activities on a case-by-case basis. (T-3)  7.6.2.1. Unit PA offices will comply with established higher-level PA guidance and develop an internal information plan to accommodate this guidance. (T-2)  7.6.2.2. Local media interest may be accommodated on a not-to-interfere basis with Open Skies activities, and only with the DTRA Escort Team Chief’s concurrence.  7.6.2.3. The installation PA office will keep the community aware of OST activities via routine meetings between key civic leaders and base officials. (T-3)  7.6.2.4. Host units will use prepared news releases whenever possible using coordinated and approved language from PA guidance for Open Skies treaty authored by DTRA. (T- 3) So what does all that mean? I think this means that you're going to need to pull information out of the US Government, and they're not going to want to provide you anything. It will be like pulling teeth.
In researching the Open Skies Treaty you probably discovered was the Treaty on Open Skies, or Open Skies Treaty, has the same name as some commercial multinational aviation trade agreements, also known by the name Open Skies. These have nothing to do with each other, and unfortunately it's hard to tell them apart with Google.



Pro Tip:
When searching for something to do with the Open Skies Treaty, try the following search terms.
open skies treaty russia
Chances are, all references to the treaty on the internet will include the word "Russia".


The Open Skies Treaty is not a bilateral treaty between the United States and Russia. You don't need to limit yourself to talking to just the Americans, or just the Russians. It is a 34-way multinational treaty between the following countries; all of the countries have equal say, and are affected by anything the United States or Russia arbitrarily does. I suspect many would be more than happy to unload on you if you asked them.



Belarus The French Republic Kingdom of the Netherlands Turkey
Belgium The Republic of Georgia Norway Ukraine
Bosnia and Herzegovina Germany Poland The United Kingdom
Bulgaria Greece Portugal The United States
Canada Hungary Romania
Croatia Iceland The Russian Federation
The Czech Republic Italy Slovakia
Denmark Latvia Slovenia
Estonia Lithuania Spain
Finland Luxembourg Sweden

Each of these countries has at least two government departments with rolls to play regarding the treaty, the US has three. 

Each has an analogue to Global Affairs Canada or the United States Department of State, which manage the treaty at a diplomatic-level.
Each has an analogue to the Royal Canadian Air Force or United States Air Force, who implement the treaty on an operational-level.
I do not understand how the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) fits in with the other two, but they are also pivotal in the execution of Open Skies Treaty missions over the USA and Russia.

If you are a correspondant outside the US, or have contacts outside the US, why not discuss the Open Skies Treaty with other national Foreign Affairs departments. I've never heard an interview with the Italians, the French, the Spanish.. well, any other countries regarding their Open Skies Treaty opinions. Being a 34+ nation treaty, it can afford more interesting interview opportunities than a simple bilateral agreement, like the old SALT or START agreements. Do you think 34 nations' representatives could synchronize their stories before speaking to the cameras, if the media were asking questions and on the ball? I bet the head of the Slovenian delegation to the OSCC would have some interesting things to say about the American Open Skies policies; if only they were asked!



You might not realize that the people flying these missions, don't actually know what they're photographing.  The Royal Canadian Air Force is given direction to perform overflights of Russia, but they are only given coordinates of the targets for their observation mission. While military intelligence might be giving them part of the list of targets to photograph, other branches of the Canadian government could be asking for the information and proving their own list of sites they would like photographed. While the crews of the Open Skies Treaty plane performing the overflight might have a good idea of what they're taking pictures of, sometimes it's less obvious. If you want to know how the treaty is really operating, you want to talk to the Air Force personnel who are doing it.

If you want to know how negotiations and amendments to the treaty are going, at the latest meeting in Geneva, you want to talk to Global Affairs Canada, the State Department, or your favourite national equivalent. They are the diplomatic interface that makes the treaty work, and while they do talk to those who are actually performing the flights and executing the missions, they are the bean counters, not the boots on the ground (er, boots in the air?).


The Open Skies Treaty is the brainchild of Dwight Eisenhower in 1955, but it was only resurrected and signed much later, in 1992, by George H.W. Bush, and came into force in 2002.







Unlike a topic like cancelling people's health coverage, which can get people quite animated, there will be no outcry over the Open Skies Treaty, because people don't know what it is, that it's in place, and flights have been happening since 2002. Russians have been conducting flights over the US, almost monthly, for 15 years, and it's still "news" to people each time it makes headlines.  This is, of course, partially due to the lack of publicity out of the US Government.  Also, as I told Royal Canadian Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel Veillette, Section Head of Strategic Joint Staff, Arms Control and Verification 4, arms control is not sexy.  Without some sort of sizzler or scandal, I think it's been hard to get the media and public attention arms control treaties deserve.  I hope that's about to change. 


If you're researching a story about an American official, politician or appointee, disparaging the Open Skies Treaty; shouldn't there be 33 other voices agreeing with him? Issuing press releases?

Maybe, as a journalist who's looking for confirmation of a statement from the current administration, you'd like to interview a former head of the State Department who might contradict today's message?  Yes, that's an excellent idea.  Hillary Clinton, you may have heard of her, was a big fan of the Open Skies treaty, and a huge supporter of going digital and away from the wet film cameras that are presently used by all countries, except Russia.  Yes, Russia built, from scratch, a digital camera that adheres to all the resolution limits and stipulations in the Open Skies Treaty, and has it deployed already; which has upset the United States Defence Intelligence Agency greatly, mostly because they were shown to be wrong and politically motivated in their objections to going digital. But what about the US digital camera initiatives?  Well; budget cut-backs. You know how it is.  I'm quite sure Hillary Clinton would love to do an interview about the Open Skies Treaty and the proposed, but never implemented, US digital upgrade.  Just don't ask her about the emails, she's still touchy about the emails.


Perhaps Rose Gottemoeller, now the Deputy Secretary General of NATO, who worked with the State Department Arms Control and Compliance group from 2009 to 2016 as the Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation, and then as the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, would be willing to give a statement.  Although outside of her current duties, with which she is no doubt very busy, she might give a good quote.



Diana Marvin, a former senior member of the State Department Arms Control department, might have time to make a statement from her previous experience from the Obama, Bush, and Clinton years.





I'm really baffled how a treaty, proposed by the US, that promotes openness, has been perverted by the US Government into a collection of secret overflights; maybe it's 1950s paranoia that was just carried forward without much thought. Distrust of their own citizen perhaps? I really don't know. I do know that the secrecy around it provokes fear in paranoid Americans and fuels unhealthy conspiracy theories.  Can we please end the secrecy and report on these overflights as the successful multi-national treaty implementation that it is, and has been, for many years?


"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman." (1914)
-Louis Brandeis, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1916-1939)

August 17, 2017

Two Russian Open Skies Treaty aerial observation missions over the USA in June 2017

If you're unfamiliar with the Open Skies Treaty, I've written quite a bit about it before, and I highly recommend leafing through the old blog posts to get up to speed.

What you're about to read is coverage that no news organisation (that I'm aware of) is providing you, because USAF policy is to not talk about Open Skies Treaty observation flights.  Yes, like Fight Club. Since no press releases are put out by the USAF, no US media cover the flights, because they don't know what to say, and all the USAF personnel who could say something, are not allowed to per USAF policy.  Page 30, Section 4.2.1.1.4.7, Air Force Manual 16-604 (2009) "posture for OST flights is “passive.” (we) respond to inquiries, but (don't) promote activities" while that does not specifically state that USAF personnel are not allowed to talk about it, the information is classified (a low-level classification) and the treaty is obscure.  If the US Media were trying to confirm when a flight was happening, IF it was happening, their first source would be TASS or Sputnik, which would immediately raise red flags to Western Media editors. After all, why believe these agents of disinformation and Russian propaganda?  Well, maybe because they're the only people who publicise the treaty overflights; of the US over Russia, or Russia over other countries.  Why is it that only Russia tells their people about a 34+ nation treaty that's working extremely well? Why doesn't the US government want their citizens to know they exercise their treaty rights to overfly Russia, and Russia does the same to the USA, on an almost monthly basis?

I don't know. It's a complete mystery to me.

The Russian Federation performed two scheduled aerial observation missions over the United States under the terms agreed upon by the 34-35 nations in the Treaty on Open Skies, or Open Skies Treaty as it is commonly referred to, between June 19th and June 30th, 2017. Per treaty rules, they left, stopped at CFB Trenton, and went back in between overflights.

June 19 - June 23, 2017

The Russian team flew in to Travis AFB, on their Treaty-approved Tupolev Tu-154M, and recently outfitted digital camera, from Moscow, on Monday, and likely negotiated the flight plan they proposed on Tuesday morning with the American team. The US team is assigned to escort them in their observation plane and ensure all restrictions of the overflight are adhered to; heights are as promised, courses are adhered to, etc. From Tuesday to Thursday (Thursday is when the observation flights started) the US military and defence industry would have been alerted, and would likely have been covering up/moving any equipment they did not want photographed that was along the flight path.  This is standard procedure, and known to be a cat and mouse game.  Anything too big to move will simply be photographed, but these flights, while short notice, can be anticipated to a certain extent. They are routine, happen half a dozen times a year, and I don't think any out-in-the-open testing is ever performed without consideration regarding it being photographed by satellites or the Open Skies Treaty overflights.  After all, the Russian Federation (and the Chinese) also have satellites which can (at least) see the visual spectrum, and may also be outfitted with space-borne Synthetic Aperture Radar. After a brief tour of California, the Russian team (with their American handlers aboard) went to Alaska.  Unfortunately, FlightRadar24 and ADSBExchange have terrible coverage up there, and little of the flight was captured by transponder.  From what I gather that may or may not have overflown several air force bases including missile launch facilities.



June 26 - June 30, 2017

The second week's flights took place first over Texas at a low altitude (5000ft), then after a brief stop to uncover the belly mounted framing camera, continued at a higher altitude. On Friday they finished off the New Mexico leg of the trip, overflying many famous historical nuclear test, development, and production facilities.



But what did they take pictures of?  Well, that's an excellent question. I don't know, but I can make some educated guesses, and you can too,  if you follow along:

  • Open Skies Treaty flights are based on a negotiation of a flight plan that is proposed by the overflying party. The observed party can argue or debate which route to the locations might be best, if poor weather is expected, or if cloud cover will hamper the trip, they can propose alternate routes or sites. Ultimately, the overflying party can refuse the options and insist on the flight plan they want, and if the overflown party objects, they need to cancel the whole trip, with causses a major international incident.  But, there are some things that are constant on these flight plans (from studying past flight plans); steady speed and constant height are tell-tale signs of photos being taken. When the flight plan is agreed to, there are legs, and for each leg an altitude is selected which will place the camera at the correct distance from the ground to get 30cm imagery.  Same with speed; they want the speed of the aircraft to be consistant. Usually the height is between 8000-12000ft and the speed between 300-350kts.  On the maps I've marked potential sites in the right speed envelope in green (based on my best estimate). If the plane is doing 500kts, they aren't taking pictures. If they're at 34,000ft, they aren't taking pictures either. If they're at 8,000ft, and doing 300kts, you can bet they're taking pictures, or are lining up for the shot.
  • American military or defence installations are sometimes pretty easy to spot along the line, especially if they're extremely remote.  If in the middle of a desert there's a runway, some fiel tanks, and some buildings... congratulations you've found some semi-secret remote military industrial complex test site, or where they keep the aliens; you get the idea.  If the speed of the plane is between 300-350, and the height is stable, that's the sweet spot, and you know there is either something there, something was there previously, or they thought something could be there, and wanted a closer look.
  • Open Street Maps makes it easy to spot government facilities, as they're usually large pink sections of the map. Have a look at https://www.openstreetmap.org/ if you're struggling to name a site, and you might find it spelled out to you.
This is an Open Skies (OS) Format 14 document, submitted to the Canadian RCAF by the Russian RuAF at the conclusion of one of their Open Skies Treaty flights over Canada.



As I've pointed out previously, there is absolutely no reason any American reading this couldn't request (via FOIA) from the USAF, State Department, or DTRA, ALL the flight plans documented on Open Skies Format 14 templates (like the above) from 2002 to present day.
That will tell you exactly what legs were flown, and where the pictures were taken.

So what are you waiting for?

June 26, 2017

The leaked statement from the ACX Crystal's Captain is an easily disproven lie.

USS Fitzgerald (MMSI:338839000 Callsign:NFTZ)
(June 27th, 2o017 edit; punctuation, time of distress call, age of ship)
Tim Kelly of Reuters reports that Captain Ronald Advincula of the AXC Crystal 
(IMO:9360611) made a statement to the ships's owner, Dainichi Investment Corporation, in which he stated (not a direct quote of Ronald Advincula):
"The container ship steered hard to starboard (right) to avoid the warship, but hit the Fitzgerald 10 minutes later at 1:30 a.m."
-Tim Kelly, Reuters, paraphrasing the Captain of the ACX Crystal.
Tim went on to say "Reuters was not able to independently verify the account" I'm not sure if that's akin to saying he didn't have time to look it up, or they could find no evidence to support the claim. In such cases I'd really rather they say flat out that the statement is a complete fabrication based on the available evidence, as is the case here. Please review the MarineTraffic.com derived data I published on June 17th (in this blog post) and I have included below again. Each dot can be clicked on for the precise time, position, and speed of the ACX Crystal. For a blow-by-blow description of the events (as I interpret them) from the AIS data, please see my previous blog post.

From the data below it is clear to me the statement from the captain of the ACX Crystal is complete fiction, and quite possibly the actions of someone who knows they are guilty of gross negligence causing the death of 7 American sailors.  There is no missing 10 minute chunk of time before the collision at 01:30am(16:30Z); I believe his statement is completely made up to try and save his own hide.

I maintain that there is no evidence to suggest anyone was on the bridge between 01:30am(16:30Z) and 01:46am(16:46Z).  It took ~16 minutes, after the collision, for someone to turn off the autopilot and start to slow the ACX Crystal down before a hard turn to port, making a "U Turn", and heading back to the site of the collision, and making the initial distress call on behalf of the USS Fitzgerald at ~2:25am(17:25Z).

Below you have the MarineTraffic.com AIS data, on a Google Fusion Tables generated map, that you can draw your own conclusions from.  For a blow by blow description of these moments my June 17th blog post is holding up pretty well to the test of time, so far, I think.



Additional details about the ship reported by MarineLog.com confirm the captain's name, that there were 20 crew, and ship's specifications. Also of note; the ship was relatively new, built in 2008, therefore would be outfitted with modern navigational radar and communications systems. I mention this because there's such a variety of ships on the sea, it's worth noting this is one of the more modern ship, not an old rusty hulk with a consumer-grade GPS leaning on the window.

June 17, 2017

Mapping the ACX Crystal's collision with the USS Fitzgerald using publicly available info

USS Fitzgerald (MMSI:338839000 Callsign:NFTZ)
(2017.06.17 edit)
Per the USNavy's 7th Fleet public affairs office;
USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) was involved in a collision with a merchant vessel at approximately 2:30 a.m. local time, June 17, while operating about 56 nautical miles southwest of Yokosuka, Japan.

The merchant vessel was the Filipino-flagged ACX Crystal container-ship (IMO:9360611) and she did have her AIS transponder on at the time of the incident.

From the news footage below you'll notice an area of severe damage which looks to me to be from an impact at a perpendicular angle, and not a grazing strike, since there is no scraping or dragging down the length of the USS Fitzgerald. I'm not suggesting the impact was deliberate, only that the vessels would have deflected if they had hit with a glancing strike, where to me it looks like the bow of the Crystal embedded itself for a short period in the USS Fitzgerald. I originally thought the USS Fitzgerald was stationary before the impact, but I've since changed my mind, since I've been told that there would be no operational reason to be stationary near an area of high traffic, on a moonless night. Valid point. Then if she wasn't stationary, why was she crossing the path of the shipping lane and how didn't they notice the 30,000 Ton ship on a collision course with them?



Here is the MarineTraffic.com animation of the entire collision:


I have provided a Google Fusion map below, and linked to the original source data that might be useful to you if you want to do a deeper investigation into the original story yourself.



The data looks a little confusing, so watch the video to get an idea of how the strike happened. The colour coding is to show the speeds of the ACX Crystal when moving. Red is almost stopped, Green is full speed ahead.

From a discussion with JJ I think the UTC/JST conversion may have been messed up, or the reported time by the US Navy and Japanese Coast Guard was not representative of the time of the collision, only when the collision was reported.  I doubt anyone in the US military would mix up time zones, since they're very accurate regarding time. The US Navy press release reports the incident happened at 2:30am "LOCAL TIME", which is Japan Standard Time or JST, and which is UTC+9.  The AIS data I scraped from MarineTraffic.com shows accurate to-the-second (or less) data, so that is what I can rely on for accuracy. Could the ACX Crystal have hit the USS Fitzgerald at full speed just before 16:30Z, rather than ~17:30Z as the US Navy said in their press release? I think so.  With that in mind, watch the video again.  Did the ACX Crystal strike the USS Fitzgerald while on a 70 degree course before 16:30Z, then while on autopilot, correct itself after the USS Fitzgerald was knocked free?  If so, it took another hour for the crew to figure out what happened, turn the ACX Crystal around, and return to the USS Fitzgerald - it's unclear if they even knew what they struck.  JJ suggested maybe the time the accident was called in was ~2:30am JST, but the strike had happened earlier. This makes significant sense to me, and explains the "U turn" they performed, especially if you realize the impact was one 30 minutes before the u-turn.

AIS Data



Timestamp (UTC)SourceSpeed (kn)LatitudeLongitudeCourse
2017-06-16 16:19 (UTC)Terr-AIS18.134.5037139.00869
2017-06-16 16:21 (UTC)Terr-AIS18.434.50739139.020870
2017-06-16 16:24 (UTC)Terr-AIS18.434.51177139.035870
2017-06-16 16:27 (UTC)Terr-AIS18.534.51718139.05470
2017-06-16 16:30 (UTC)Terr-AIS17.334.52216139.072388
2017-06-16 16:33 (UTC)Terr-AIS11.234.51329139.0761135
2017-06-16 16:36 (UTC)Terr-AIS14.634.50962139.0878118
2017-06-16 16:38 (UTC)Terr-AIS13.134.5119139.094441
2017-06-16 16:40 (UTC)Terr-AIS15.334.51949139.104370
2017-06-16 16:43 (UTC)Terr-AIS15.234.52352139.114556
2017-06-16 16:46 (UTC)Terr-AIS15.434.52807139.122656

Those who know my blog will not be disapointed; of course I want to show you the minute-by-minute account of the ACX Crystal's journey and try and tease out what we can from it. Above you have the AIS data from what I believe covers the entire horrific event, and the ACX Crystal leaving the scene of the collision. Yes. LEAVING the scene, only to return an hour later. I'll get back to that.  I believe this shows that 1) nobody was on the bridge of the Crystal and 2) "Iron Mike" was in controls for a full 15min *after* the collision; see item 1.  There have been no reports that any distress call went out until after the ACX Crystal came back at 17:30Z, an hour after the collision.

Some people hate analogies, but here's one anyway.  If you were in the driver seat of a self-driving car, hit another car, and your self-driving car kept driving along the road... how long would it take you to hit the off button?  Well, it took the crew of the Crystal, who I'm positive were not on the bridge, 15 minutes to find the autopilot off button.  Either they were very disoriented by the impact, or they weren't on the bridge to begin with, and had to get up to the bridge in order to shut down the autopilot.

16:27Z
All is well, the ship is on a 70° course, sailing at a fast 18.5kn.

16:30Z
Course has changed +18°, speed dropped slightly, 1.2kn. The collision has likely already happened

16:33Z
Course is now +65° off original, and speed is down to 11.2kn.  Something is clearly wrong, the collision has likely happened, and the 30,000ton container ship has been spun 65° off course by the impact or thrust of the USS Fitzgerald's engines.

16:36Z
It gets weirder. Speed is back up to 14.6kn, and the ship is coming back on course, now "only" +48° off her original course.  Did the ACX Crystal spear the USS Fitzgerald, and just shake it off? That's right, after smashing into another ship, the 30,000 ton container ship is swinging around and increasing speed.  If anyone was at the helm, this would not be happening.

16:38Z
ACX Crystal has now swung around in 2 minutes to a course of 41°, -22° off the original course, and is seemingly trying to correct its course toward her original destination.  Almost like nobody is at the helm, and the ship is being controlled by Iron Mike (the autopilot)

16:40Z
Course corrected, back on a heading of 70°, speed is up to 15.3kn, and the ship is steaming away from the accident. It's been ten minutes since the collision, and nobody has disengaged the autopilot yet.  How do I know? Because they haven't reduced speed or turned around.

16:43Z, 16:46Z
Course corrections, but still no slowing down, now up to 15.4kn. How far are the crew quarters from the bridge on that ship?

Timestamp (UTC)SourceSpeed (kn)LatitudeLongitudeCourse
2017-06-16 16:49 (UTC)Terr-AIS1434.53545139.14373
2017-06-16 16:52 (UTC)Terr-AIS12.934.53923139.157270
2017-06-16 16:55 (UTC)Terr-AIS12.234.54282139.16862
2017-06-16 16:58 (UTC)Terr-AIS12.334.5469139.177863
2017-06-16 17:00 (UTC)Terr-AIS12.434.55079139.187162
2017-06-16 17:03 (UTC)Terr-AIS11.934.55532139.197664
2017-06-16 17:06 (UTC)Terr-AIS7.634.56187139.199305
2017-06-16 17:09 (UTC)Terr-AIS9.434.56249139.1927263
2017-06-16 17:11 (UTC)Terr-AIS1034.56231139.1911261
2017-06-16 17:14 (UTC)Terr-AIS12.434.5595139.172260
2017-06-16 17:18 (UTC)Terr-AIS12.934.55806139.1623260
2017-06-16 17:20 (UTC)Terr-AIS13.734.55479139.1448256
2017-06-16 17:24 (UTC)Terr-AIS14.134.5519139.1302255
2017-06-16 17:26 (UTC)Terr-AIS14.434.54954139.12254
2017-06-16 17:29 (UTC)Terr-AIS14.634.54608139.1029259
2017-06-16 17:33 (UTC)Terr-AIS1334.54381139.0875260
2017-06-16 17:35 (UTC)Terr-AIS11.734.54243139.0776259
2017-06-16 17:38 (UTC)Terr-AIS9.934.53842139.0665243

17:03Z
While the ship has slowed to just under 13kn, it still hasn't turned around.

17:06Z
The Crystal is turning hard and has slowed somewhat.

17:09Z
The Crystal has turned completely around and is doing ~13kn toward the location where they hit "something".  I don't think anyone aboard the ACX Crystal knows by this point what they hit. There are no reports that any distress calls by this time.  There has been no suggestion they called the Japanese Coast Guard by this time for any information either. What did they think they hit?

17:38Z
Over an hour after the initial collision. The US Navy reported the accident happened around this time. I believe what they meant was the distress call was received by the Japanese Coast Guard around this time, because it would be unthinkable that you, a 30,000 ton container ship, would collide with another ship, and not mention it to the Coast Guard, for an hour?


Timestamp (UTC)SourceSpeed (kn)LatitudeLongitudeCourse
2017-06-16 17:52 (UTC)Terr-AIS2.934.52554139.055590
2017-06-16 17:56 (UTC)Terr-AIS3.234.52657139.058759
2017-06-16 18:00 (UTC)Terr-AIS3.234.52952139.0609354
2017-06-16 18:02 (UTC)Terr-AIS434.53196139.0605352
2017-06-16 18:06 (UTC)Terr-AIS434.53695139.060212
2017-06-16 18:11 (UTC)Terr-AIS3.934.54041139.063849
2017-06-16 18:15 (UTC)Terr-AIS3.934.5432139.06839
2017-06-16 18:18 (UTC)Terr-AIS3.734.54664139.0684330
2017-06-16 18:23 (UTC)Terr-AIS4.834.54985139.0638309
2017-06-16 18:25 (UTC)Terr-AIS5.234.55213139.0606305
2017-06-16 18:28 (UTC)Terr-AIS4.934.55527139.0573339
2017-06-16 18:36 (UTC)Terr-AIS134.56038139.0575
2017-06-16 18:41 (UTC)Terr-AIS0.434.56104139.0567296
2017-06-16 18:43 (UTC)Terr-AIS0.534.56106139.0564266
2017-06-16 18:47 (UTC)Terr-AIS0.934.561139.0554270
2017-06-16 18:57 (UTC)Terr-AIS2.434.5608139.055692
2017-06-16 19:00 (UTC)Terr-AIS3.434.56094139.058384
2017-06-16 19:03 (UTC)Terr-AIS434.5612139.061882

17:52Z onward
There is a 14 minute gap that I can't explain, did they turn off AIS?
From this time forward, regular updates keep coming in at 2-3min intervals.  Speed and course changes seem to suggest they were looking for survivors or trying to otherwise assist.

In conclusion I have absolutely no idea what happened out there; I'm trying to think through the story with the available evidence and string it together.  By my understanding of the events I believe there was nobody on the bridge of he ACX Crystal at the time of the collision, and for ~15 minutes afterwards showed no signs of being manned with anyone on the bridge as the course auto-corrected, and increased speed, moving way from the impact site, trying to come back up to the original speed. The damage on the bow, below the water line, slowed the ship down from it's original 18kn due to drag.  Knowing when the Japanese Coast Guard was called is a detail that has not been revealed yet, and we all know there's a recording of it out there somewhere.

I'll update as I find out more, or more evidence is revealed.

For updates on the situation follow the 7th Fleet on Twitter, or check their webpage for updates: http://www.c7f.navy.mil/Media/News/